Few things can bring together — or divide — a faith community the way a building or renovation project can. And yet, for every parish and institution, shifting realities and needs can demand that members recognize when a time for change has come. Sometimes these changes are primarily cosmetic, with a focus on the minor repairs or updates. At other times, communities will have to make difficult decisions about renovating an existing space, demolishing historic buildings and building new spaces for worship, meetings and faith formation.
To help navigate the complex process of discernment, fundraising, planning and construction, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Building Commission provides specific resources and guidelines for parishes and institutions that are contemplating building and renovation.
Under the direction of Mark Kemmeter, who also serves the archdiocese as Director of the Office of Planning and Councils, the Building Commission works to provide active support to communities contemplating building and renovation projects.
“The Building Commission exists to assist the archbishop in assessing the feasibility of building projects,” Kemmeter said. “Most of the members are ‘in-house,’ but we also draw on outside help. This includes a priest, someone from Catholic Mutual [Insurance], and right now we also have two architects, as well as someone from parish finances.”
In assessing a proposal, the Building Commission focuses its attention on two areas of concern: the construction itself and the parish’s ability to fund the project.
The Commission asks parishes to follow a four-step process that is outlined in detail in the archdiocese’s “Building Guidelines” (which can be found in the resources section of the archdiocese’s website).
This important process begins with a feasibility study but, as Kemmeter notes, “If a parish is thinking of building something, they have to get permission to study it. The archbishop wants to look at this information so that we can look at assessments, etc., to help make sure that a parish is in the position to build.”
Once permission has been obtained and a study is conducted, the parish or institution can move forward in its search for an architect. This is also done in dialogue with the Building Commission. In addition to an architect, many parishes will also choose to hire a liturgical consultant. The purpose of the liturgical consultant is to help a parish community understand the theology and demands of the Church’s liturgy and rituals and to collaborate with the architect and archdiocese in making sure that a community follows liturgical guidelines, particularly those outlined in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and United States Bishops’ document Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship. Regardless of whether a parish or institution uses a liturgical consultant, the archdiocese always recommends some element of liturgical formation for parish leadership.
Once these initial steps have been taken and approval has been given, the parish or institution can submit design plans for approval and, once this has been obtained, construction can begin.
For Kemmeter and the members of the Building Commission, their work goes beyond simply providing active support for parishes and institutions that help to construct new buildings or renovate existing structures. An important point of consideration is how these construction and renovation projects intersect with the long-range planning goals of the archdiocese.
“We’re starting to raise questions about new construction, particularly considering that many of our parishes are multi-parish communities. Is this really necessary? Are there facilities like this available already? Are you replicating something that is already there? It’s really another filter.”
In its work with parishes and other institutions, the Building Commission seeks to facilitate dialogue.
“I think we’ve done a good job of creating a spirit of dialogue so that parishes realize that our role and their role are not that different. We want to make sure we’re doing the best possible project we can,” Kemmeter said. “More and more we see parishes asking themselves what more could be done with spaces they have.”
This willingness to discern and find creative solutions to space issues calls for greater creativity but can also often minimize financial strain on parishes and other institutions.
Ultimately, as Built of Living Stones observes, “The process of building a church calls the People of God to the unfished business of the community.”
The building, renovation and maintenance of church buildings, schools, rectories and meeting areas are expressions of how each community lives out its commitment to the Church’s mission to evangelization.
“We are coming out of an era when, in many parishes, the attitude was ‘what do we need to do to survive,’” Kemmeter observed. “What we want to do as a diocese is to help parishes thrive. One of the ways this can happen is by parishes becoming larger. The mission of the Church is the same for all parishes and what we are able to do now is to strengthen our ability for mission in the fullness of what that means in every part of the diocese.”